Irrational Man (***)
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley.
“So much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation.”
PEOPLE have said a lot of things about Woody Allen over the years, but whatever the shade of opinion ‘productive’ is an adjective everyone can agree on. Irrational Man is Allen’s 45th feature film in a near 50 year directorial career. Recent successes like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine show that a new Woody Allen movie is more than just a number. But where there is good, there is also bad- his last film, Magic in the Moonlight, was thoroughly underwhelming. Couple this with the inescapable spectre of ‘the early funny ones’ and ‘productive’ just isn’t going to cut it.
Irrational Man opens with an extended sequence of Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) taking up his new post as a philosophy lecturer at Braylin College in New England. Much like Allen, himself, Abe’s reputation precedes him and we hear a multitude of opinions and rumours about this gifted, but clearly troubled man. Once there, Abe quickly develops a close bond with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), who is captivated by Abe’s experience and knowledge of the world, but also by a darkness that seems chained to his soul.
The story plays out intriguingly with a multiple voice-over point of view- we hear Abe’s inner monologue as he describes his feelings and motivations as events unfold; additionally though, Jill also provides a retrospective voice-over, suggesting all is not what it first seems. Allen sets up his characters and the small-town, high-society world of Braylin with all the economy and ease you would expect of a filmmaker of his experience. The film’s plot, or at least its true plot, does not really kick in- quite deliberately- until a third of the way in, and it’s a welcome change of pace when it does.
Very early on the audience find themselves on familiar Allen territory- philosophy, women and crime. The opening half an hour though isn’t much more than padded character development in what appears to be a mediocre romantic drama. Allen occasionally piques our interest with some choice dialogue- philosophy is described by Abe as ‘verbal masturbation’- but even a Russian roulette scene comes and goes with little humour or drama.
The film’s stealthy transition into a thriller, however, brings a new-found impetus and intrigue, not only to the audience, but to Abe’s character also. Just as with A Streetcar Named Desire for Blue Jasmine, Allen draws on literary inspiration in the form of Crime and Punishment for this film and its twin voice-over helps to reinforce the ideologically opposed points of view of the two central characters, wrestling with a fundamental moral dilemma. The twist in the plot, while invigorating the character of Abe, only serves to reinforce Jill’s largely blank and uninteresting character- painting her as the conservative voice of reason. Second time round things aren’t much better for Emma Stone who, after Magic in the Moonlight, might be wondering if this is the same Woody Allen who wrote Oscar-winning roles for Diane Keaton, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz, Cate Blanchett and Dianne Wiest twice.
Ultimately, this may not be vintage Woody, but there is enough in the last two-thirds of the film, including a delicious, darkly comic ending, to include Irrational Man among Allen’s better films. Tantalizingly though, the audience may be left with the feeling- like the film’s protagonist, reflecting on life itself- that Allen really should have made a better fist of it.